U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Debating Intellectual History in the Classroom

Debating Intellectual History in the Classroom

by Christopher Cameron

[Editor’s note: the following post is yet another outstanding offering from our frequent guest contributor Christopher Cameron. In addition to today’s post, he will be contributing to the blog for the remaining Saturdays in June. — LDB]

It was not until a couple semesters into my time as a faculty member that I began teaching intellectual history. I did lecture and assign readings on topics such as the Enlightenment, Puritanism, Transcendentalism, and proslavery thought in my early U.S. survey class. I found that students really struggled to grasp concepts such as Lockean epistemology and its relation to American social thought. Neither did they seem too impressed with John Adams “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” and our discussions of that text seemed to fall pretty flat. Now I can see why they may not have gotten excited about reading Adams, but I thought surely reading Emerson’s “The American Scholar” would fire them up, as it did when I read it in college back in 2005. Such was not the case. The same was true when I assigned what I think is one of the most interesting sources in American intellectual history, Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

After my second semester of very uninspired discussions whenever the topic was intellectual history, I decided to switch things up and have in-class debates. The first time I did this was after I had lectured on abolitionism and proslavery thought. My students had read Douglass’s speech and Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South. I then had them debate the question of whether or not slavery should be abolished, using only arguments from the lecture and documents. I promised the winning side extra credit on their exam, and told them their scores would depend on their ability to accurately apply the historical arguments to the question.

It was amazing to see the difference between the way they responded to a traditional discussion and their participation in the debate. By taking on the persona of a James Henry Hammond or Theodore Parker they seemed to internalize and grasp the ideas much more quickly and effectively than I had witnessed before. On top of that, they had fun, which is no small matter.

The way I did this was to allow the students to choose their side. A colleague at Gardner-Webb University uses a similar exercise when teaching antislavery and proslavery thought. He puts all the students on the abolitionist side, however, and the entire class argues against his proslavery stance. At first they are confounded, which is great because they realize the strength these arguments would have wielded at the time, even if they seem ridiculous today. Eventually they find some holes in his case and strengthen their own claims.

I recently used a similar exercise in my American Religious History class. I spent three classes lecturing on 18th and 19th century evangelicalism, as well as the rise of American liberal theology. After assigning excerpts from Peter Cartwright’s autobiography and Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion, along with William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity,” I set up another debate. This time, my students were to imagine they were a group of people in the early 19th century deciding on what type of church to form, evangelical or liberal. For the purposes of simplicity I conflated the distinctions within each of these terms. They were to debate the relative merits of the other theological positions and the impact that certain religious ideas had in structuring society. The debate was definitely the most lively discussion we have had, and I left feeling that they understood the concepts much better than after our regular question and answer discussion sections. Of course, using the carrot of extra credit gives them a good incentive for energetic participation, but the debate setting also gets their competitive juices flowing. They become much more invested in understanding the ideas because they want to beat their opponents. And once again, it was a very fun way to spend an hour.

So after trying this out a few times, I am convinced that debates are a very effective tool for teaching the history of ideas. I cannot do it in every class discussion, of course, but will try and have one at least once or twice a semester. So have any of you tried different debate formats or used them for different topics? What other discussion strategies do you employ to liven things up a bit while teaching intellectual history?

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I love these “best practices” discussions, Chris, thanks so much for starting one. I do use the debate format alot alongside weekly discussion papers (i. e., succinct summary of readings, personal reflection, and question for class debate). Often in debates, though, 1 or 2 students on either side either “take over” or become the “go to” debater for their classmates. Have you had similar experiences during your debates? How did you handle them?

    • I do make it clear that all students must participate to receive the extra credit and I generally pick a person who does not talk much on either side to offer opening arguments. But I have not found a more subtle way to stop students from dominating the debate than interrupting them and asking to hear from others. When this happens the debates can become sort of hybrid debates/discussions, but they are still much more more effective than our standard discussions.

  2. Thanks for this post, Chris. I agree with Mark; I’m a big fan of these conversations. I’ve toyed with this idea for a couple semesters and you are confirming that I have to give it a try. My previous concern was that students (in a religion in America class) would be overly concerned with which side is “right” (as theological truth) and less about the contested/contestable nature of the ideas themselves and the social/political consequences of those ideas. Have you run into this issue in the classroom?

    • I have not, but I only used this format when debating religious ideas once. I was clear to both sides that they had to keep their arguments historically grounded and that the arguments made by either side should not be seen as personal attacks on anyone’s beliefs. The students did a good job using the documents and staying in character.

      • After assigning excerpts from Peter Cartwright’s autobiography and Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion, along with William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity,” I set up another debate.

        Debating all sides of the same side—not an orthodox theologian in the bunch, not Anglican, Calvinist and forget the Roman church. Even Cartwright was a wing-it Wesleyan.

        Perhaps the debate was valuable as an exercise.

  3. Thanks for this post! I wish I had your success with debates. I’ve tried and will continue to try them, but for some reason I think I’m not too talented at setting them up very well. One tactic I love, however, is taking polls, something I learned from a professor I had as an undergrad. I may have mentioned teaching with polls on this blog before, but I just couldn’t be more enthusiastic about it! Make the poll questions thoughtful and interesting, offering a range of intelligent options representing different points of view or philosophies, then ask the students to raise their hand for the one they support, and keep track on the board. After asking all the questions, you can say “okay, those of you who answered____, tell me why!” They can’t sit there blankly because its says on the board that 4 or however many of them raised their hands! And suddenly they have a stake in the discussion, because they’ve just put their opinion out there publicly. I’ve created a number of debates on abstract topics this way, going back later to connect the abstract issues to the texts and/or contexts from the class.

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